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Science needs practical exams

Far from being delighted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's decision to introduce compulsory coursework to all science A-levels, as you suggest (TES, September 22), science staff at our large sixth-form college were appalled at this perverse, retrograde step.

Current A-level specifications allow for the assessment of practical skills in physics, chemistry and biology by an externally marked practical exam or internally assessed coursework. We have much recent experience of both methods, and with more than 1,000 candidate entries per year at AS and A2 in the three sciences, we have no doubt that a practical exam encourages a greater development of practical skills and is fairer to the candidates.

Exam boards' marking criteria for internally assessed practical work are often labyrinthine in their complexity, and their hierarchical nature often leads to teachers being unable to give credit for excellent work because of some relatively small omission.

Rather than ranking students in order of practical ability, the coursework leads to some very strange results. Successful preparation for internally assessed practical work involves teaching students to jump through the boards' hoops rather than giving them experience of a wide variety of laboratory techniques which could be tested in a practical exam.

We can understand why teachers in schools with small sixth-forms might find internally assessed practical work more flexible. We do, however, regard it as perverse that the QCA, charged with exploring the scaling down of coursework because of concerns about plagiarism, should force all science students to do coursework and ban the practical examination alternative, despite this being fairer and a more reliable means of ranking students.

Dr Barry Marshall, Janet Barber, Steve Unsworth Heads of physics, biology and chemistry Winstanley College, Wigan.

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